How many of us in financial leadership positions within media companies think of ourselves as trusted advisers to those to whom we report? Did you buy into the stereotype of those in finance as simply being numbers crunchers? That’s a myth, and I’m not the only one who wants to dispel it.
Hank Price, a media consultant, leadership coach, and author of the guidebook Leading Local Television (and TVNewsCheck columnist), is practiced at placing his trust in his finance lead. Price spent decades as the general manager of television stations, and learned over the years the value of having the right finance person on his team. He shares his experience and advice in his article “What Bosses Really Want,” which you can read in the January/February issue of The Financial Manager, the magazine for members of the Media Financial Management Association, of which I currently serve on the board.
I greatly appreciate Price’s insight, especially since I hold what I believe may be the singular distinction of serving both as a business unit head and financial lead for a major radio company. Before moving to my current role of CFO of Hubbard Radio in 2011, I was general manager of Hubbard Radio’s KSTP-FM Minneapolis-St. Paul for seven years. I can fully relate to Price’s personal discovery that a finance manager who becomes a trusted adviser is like gold to the head of a business unit — because I had one in Mary Schaible, our controller at KSTP.
Media companies are similar to many other businesses in that they’re complex operations with shifting priorities and internal goals often in competition with one another. Price says when he started as a general manager of a TV station 30 years ago, he firmly believed only two things mattered to most businesses: your product, and sales. Everything else takes a back seat and serves to support these two pillars. “It didn’t take long to realize just how wrong I was,” he admits.
The general manager’s chief responsibility — similar to that of most other unit heads of any type of company — is to create synergy and align every employee of the company, starting with the department heads, toward achieving a brief list of objectives. This mission can be particularly difficult since departments often vie for limited resources.
Price uses the scenario of a TV station during a political season as an example. During this period when there’s suddenly an increase of incoming advertising funds from candidates, the sales team is likely to request more inventory to take advantage of the newfound money. The news department, however, must remain focused on attracting a large enough audience to make that inventory valuable. The more commercial breaks, the more likely the station may lose viewers.
Another example is a severe weather event or natural disaster — which have been happening with greater frequency in recent years. When crews and news teams are covering the aftermath of a hurricane nearly 24/7, overtime hours and pay will skyrocket, diminishing profit. Quite often the technical department will be asked to cut expenses for several months following, all while still supporting the news department’s needs.
Many other situations happen in the broadcast world that serve as examples of competition for resources, such as when a TV station decides to carry a newly syndicated program. The costs the station incurs to air the program, including existing contracts, the lead-in value of the new program and revenue lost by preempting the program it will replace, must all be factored in.
The termination of an employee can also represent a significant cost between severance packages, potential legal issues and recruiting, hiring and training the new employee.
All of these issues weigh on the finance department, and particularly its head. As Price notes: “A wise old general manager once told me, ‘You can always fix news or sales, but if you get the wrong financial person, you can be ruined.’ He was right.”
Price goes on to explain that as the years passed and he managed increasingly larger stations and worked with dependable and smart financial managers, he came to depend on them heavily, referring to these individuals has “my trusted confidant, adviser and right arm.”
The financial manager, indeed, is the only person within a company with knowledge of the gamut of internal operations — from employee compensation to vendor contracts to the utility bills. That person has a breadth of knowledge like no other on staff and should be part of every major decision.
I chuckled at — but also respect — the speech Price said he used to give each new financial manager he worked with: “Your job is to keep me out of jail. That means no one breaks the rules or plays with the numbers, including me. Your second job is to work with me to solve problems, so you need to understand how the various departments work as well as I do.”
He played a key role in the relationship, too, by giving his financial managers as much face-to-face time as they required, supporting their career goals and acting as a leadership mentor.
Price provides some solid advice in his column, starting with recommending that all financial managers should seek to develop this type of relationship with their business unit heads. And while I’ve seen all sorts of complicated diagrams and have participated in seminars on how to create this trusted adviser-unit head relationship, he boils it down to three fairly straightforward tactics I believe are smart and sensible.
First, always tell it straight. Neither sugarcoating bad news or over-celebrating good news are helpful to your unit head. Your role as finance lead is to act as the steady hand and voice of reason — one that is honest, composed, and willing to tell the truth, even if others won’t.
Second, when you must advise your department head of problems, always devise and present options to move forward during the course of addressing the problem. As Price notes, options aren’t always solutions; they’re the best possible courses to deal with the current circumstances.
Third, listen to staff and other department heads. Because you have access to employees in ways your department head does not, use that knowledge to help your boss understand internal issues. By working toward gaining a reputation as a good listener who respects boundaries, people who may not feel comfortable talking to their department head will share their confidences with you.
By following this advice, you will build trust and will become invaluable to your department head, which not only benefits the company, but also works to advance your personal career goals.
And a last call: On Jan. 19 and 20 BCCA will offer a two-day virtual Media Credit & Collections workshop. It’s designed for media credit and collection professionals from across the country to meet and share ideas and best practices for the ever-challenging and changing media credit and collections function.
Dave Bestler is vice chairman/2022 conference chair of the 2021-22 board of directors of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. He is executive vice president and chief financial officer of Hubbard Radio and can be reached at [email protected] or 651-632-6600.